The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 1/Number 2/Turkey Tracks
Don't open your eyes, Polder! You think I am going to tell you about some of my Minnesota experiences; how I used to scamper over the prairies on my Indian pony, and lie in wait for wild turkeys on the edge of an oak opening. That is pretty sport, too, to creep under an oak with low-hanging boughs, and in the silence of a glowing autumn-day linger by the hour together in a trance of warm stillness, watching the light tracery of shadow and sun on that smooth sward, only now and then roused by the fleet rush of a deer through the wood, or the brisk chatter of a plume-tailed squirrel, till one hears a distant, sharp, clucking chuckle, and in an instant more pulls the trigger, and upsets a grand old cock, every bronzed feather glittering in the sunshine, and now splashed with scarlet blood, the delicate underwing ground into down as he rolls and flutters; for the first shot rarely kills at once with an amateur; there's too much excitement. Splendid sport, that! but I'm not going into it second-hand. I promised to tell you a story, now the skipper's fast, and the night is too warm to think of sleep down in that wretched bunk;—what another torture Dante might have lavished on his Inferno, if he'd ever slept in a fishing-smack! No. The moonlight makes me sentimental! Did I ever tell you about a month I spent up in Centreville, the year I came home from Germany? That was turkey-hunting with a vengeance!
You see, my pretty cousin Peggy married Peter Smith, who owns paper-mills in Centreville, and has exiled herself into deep country for life; a circumstance I disapprove, because I like Peggy, and manufacturers always bore me, though Peter is a clever fellow enough; but madam was an old flame of mine, and I have a lingering tenderness for her yet. I wish she was nearer town. Just that year Peggy had been very ill indeed, and Kate, her sister, had gone up to nurse her. When I came home Peggy was getting better, and sent for me to come up and make a visitation there in June. I hadn't seen Kate for seven years,—not since she was thirteen; our education intervened. She had gone through that grading process and come out. By Jupiter! when she met me at the door of Smith's pretty, English-looking cottage, I took my hat off, she was so like that little Brazilian princess we used to see in the cortége of the court at Paris. What was her name? Never mind that! Kate had just such large, expressive eyes, just such masses of shiny black hair, just such a little nose,—turned up undeniably, but all the more piquant. And her teeth! good gracious! she smiled like a flash of lightning,—dark and sallow as she was. But she was cross, or stiff, or something, to me for a long time. Peggy only appeared after dinner, looking pale and lovely enough in her loose wrapper to make Peter act excessively like ——— a young married man, and to make me wish myself at an invisible distance, doing something beside picking up Kate's things, that she always dropped on the floor whenever she sewed. Peggy saw I was bored, so she requested me one day to walk down to the poultry-yard and ask about her chickens; she pretended a great deal of anxiety, and Peter had sprained his ankle.
"Kate will go with you," said she.
"No, she won't!" ejaculated that young woman.
"Thank you," said I, making a minuet bow, and off I went to the farm-house. Such a pretty walk it was, too! through a thicket of birches, down a little hill-side into a hollow full of hoary chestnut-trees, across a bubbling, dancing brook, and you came out upon the tiniest orchard in the world, a one-storied house with a red porch, and a great sweet-brier bush thereby; while up the hill-side behind stretched a high picket fence, enclosing huge trees, part of the same brook I had crossed here dammed into a pond, and a chicken-house of pretentious height and aspect,—one of those model institutions that are the ruin of gentlemen-farmers and the delight of women. I had to go into the farm-kitchen for the poultry-yard key. The door stood open, and I stepped in cautiously, lest I should come unaware upon some domestic scene not intended to be visible to the naked eye. And a scene I did come upon, fit for Retzsch to outline;—the cleanest kitchen, a dresser of white wood under one window, and the farmer's daughter, Melinda Tucker, moulding bread thereat in a ponderous tray; her deep red hair,—yes, it was red and comely! of the deepest bay, full of gilded reflections, and accompanied by the fair, rose-flushed skin, blue eyes, and scarlet lips that belong to such hair,—which, as I began to say, was puckered into a thousand curves trying to curl, and knotted strictly against a pretty head, while her calico frock-sleeves were pinned-back to the shoulders, baring such a dimpled pair of arms,—how they did fly up and down in the tray! I stood still contemplating the picture, and presently seeing her begin to strip the dough from her pink fingers and mould it into a mass, I ventured to knock. If you had seen her start and blush, Polder! But when she saw me, she grew as cool as you please, and called her mother. Down came Mrs. Tucker, a talking Yankee. You don't know what that is. Listen, then.
"Well, good day, sir! I'xpect it's Mister Greene, Miss Smith's cousin. Well, you be! Don't favor her much though; she's kinder dark complected. She ha'n't got round yet, hes she? Dew tell! She's dre'ful delicate. I do'no' as ever I see a woman so sickly's she looks ter be sence that 'ere fever. She's real spry when she's so's to be crawlin',—I'xpect too spry to be 'hulsome. Well, he tells me you've ben 'crost the water. 'Ta'n't jest like this over there, I guess. Pretty sightly places they be though, a'n't they? I've seen picturs in Melindy's jography, looks as ef 'twa'n't so woodsy over there as 'tis in these parts, 'specially out West. He's got folks out to Indianny, an' we sot out fur to go a-cousinin', five year back, an' we got out there inter the dre'fullest woodsy region ever ye see, where 'twa'n't trees, it was 'sketers; husband he couldn't see none out of his eyes for a hull day, and I thought I should caterpillar every time I heerd one of 'em toot; they sartainly was the beater-ee!"
"The key, if you please!" I meekly interposed. Mrs. Tucker was fast stunning me!
"Law yis! Melindy, you go git that 'ere key; it's a-hangin' up'side o' the lookin'glass in the back shed, under that bunch o' onions father strung up yisterday. Got the bread sot to rise, hev ye? well, git yer bunnet an' go out to the coop with Mr. Greene, 'n' show him the turkeys an' the chickens, 'n' tell what dre'ful luck we hev hed. I never did see sech luck! the crows they keep a-comin' an' snippin' up the little creturs jest as soon's they're hatched; an' the old turkey hen't sot under the grapevine she got two hen's eggs under her, 'n' they come out fust, so she quit ———"
Here I bolted out of the door, (a storm at sea did not deafen one like that!) Melindy following, in silence such as our blessed New England poet has immortalized,—silence that
"—Like a poultice comes,
To heal the blows of sound."
Indeed, I did not discover that Melindy could talk that day; she was very silent, very incommunicative. I inspected the fowls, and tried to look wise, but I perceived a strangled laugh twisting Melindy's face when I innocently inquired if she found catnip of much benefit to the little chickens; a natural question enough, for the yard was full of it, and I had seen Hannah give it to the baby. (Hannah is my sister.) I could only see two little turkeys,—both on the floor of the second-story parlor in the chicken-house, both flat on their backs and gasping. Melindy did not know what ailed them; so I picked them up, slung them in my pocket-handkerchief, and took them home for Peggy to manipulate. I heard Melindy chuckle as I walked off, swinging them; and to be sure, when I brought the creatures in to Peggy, one of them kicked and lay still, and the other gasped worse than ever.
"What can we do?" asked Peggy, in the most plaintive voice, as the feeble "week! week!" of the little turkey was gasped out, more feebly every time.
"Give it some whiskey-punch!" growled Peter, whose strict temperance principles were shocked by the remedies prescribed for Peggy's ague.
"So I would," said Kate, demurely.
Now if Peggy had one trait more striking than another, it was her perfect, simple faith in what people said; irony was a mystery to her; lying, a myth,—something on a par with murder. She thought Kate meant so; and reaching out for the pretty wicker-flask that contained her daily ration of old Scotch whiskey, she dropped a little drop into a spoon, diluted it with water, and was going to give it to the turkey in all seriousness, when Kate exclaimed,—
"Peggy! when will you learn common sense? Who ever heard of giving whiskey to a turkey?"
"Why, you told me to, Kate!"
"Oh, give it to the thing!" growled Peter; "it will die, of course."
"I shall give it!" said Peggy, resolutely; "it does me good, and I will try."
So I held the little creature up, while Peggy carefully tipped the dose down its throat. How it choked, kicked, and began again with "week! week!" when it meant "strong!" but it revived. Peggy held it in the sun till it grew warm, gave it a drop more, fed it with bread-crumbs from her own plate, and laid it on the south window-sill. There it lay when we went to tea; when we came back, it lay on the floor, dead; either it was tipsy, or it had tried its new strength too soon, and, rolling off, had broken its neck! Poor Peggy!
There were six more hatched the next day, though, and I held many consultations with Melindy about their welfare. Truth to tell, Kate continued so cool to me, Peter's sprained ankle lasted so long, and Peggy could so well spare me from the little matrimonial tête-à-têtes that I interrupted, (I believe they didn't mind Kate!) that I took wonderfully to the chickens. Mrs. Tucker gave me rye-bread and milk of the best; "father" instructed me in the mysteries of cattle-driving; and Melindy, and Joe, and I, used to go strawberrying, or after "posies," almost every day. Melindy was a very pretty girl, and it was very good fun to see her blue eyes open and her red lips laugh over my European experiences. Really, I began to be of some importance at the farm-house, and to take airs upon myself, I suppose; but I was not conscious of the fact at the time.
After a week or two, Melindy and I began to have bad luck with the turkeys. I found two drenched and shivering, after a hail-and-thunder storm, and setting them in a basket on the cooking-stove hearth, went to help Melindy "dress her bow-pot," as she called arranging a vase of flowers, and when I came back the little turkeys were singed; they died a few hours after. Two more were trodden on by a great Shanghai rooster, who was so tall he could not see where he set his feet down; and of the remaining pair, one disappeared mysteriously,—supposed to be rats; and one falling into the duck-pond, Melindy began to dry it in her apron, and I went to help her; I thought, as I was rubbing the thing down with the apron, while she held it, that I had found one of her soft dimpled hands, and I gave the luckless turkey such a tender pressure that it uttered a miserable squeak and departed this life. Melindy all but cried. I laughed irresistibly. So there were no more turkeys. Peggy began to wonder what they should do for the proper Thanksgiving dinner, and Peter turned restlessly on his sofa, quite convinced that everything was going to rack and ruin because he had a sprained ankle.
"Can't we buy some young turkeys?" timidly suggested Peggy.
"Of course, if one knew who had them to sell," retorted Peter.
"I know," said I; "Mrs. Amzi Peters, up on the hill over Taunton, has got some."
"Who told you about Mrs. Peters's turkeys, Cousin Sam?" said Peggy, wondering.
"Melindy," said I, quite innocently.
Peter whistled, Peggy laughed, Kate darted a keen glance at me under her long lashes.
"I know the way there," said mademoiselle, in a suspiciously bland tone. "Can't you drive there with me, Cousin Sam, and get some more?"
"I shall be charmed," said I.
Peter rang the bell and ordered the horse to be ready in the single-seated wagon, after dinner. I was going right down to the farm-house to console Melindy, and take her a book she wanted to read, for no fine lady of all my New York acquaintance enjoyed a good book more than she did; but Cousin Kate asked me to wind some yarn for her, and was so brilliant, so amiable, so altogether charming, I quite forgot Melindy till dinner-time, and then, when that was over, there was a basket to be found, and we were off,—turkey-hunting! Down hill-sides overhung with tasselled chestnut-boughs; through pine-woods where neither horse nor wagon intruded any noise of hoof or wheel upon the odorous silence, as we rolled over the sand, past green meadows, and sloping orchards; over little bright brooks that chattered musically to the bobolinks on the fence-posts, and were echoed by those sacerdotal gentlemen in such liquid, bubbling, rollicking, uproarious bursts of singing as made one think of Anacreon's grasshopper
"Drunk with morning's dewy wine."
All these we passed, and at length drew up before Mrs. Peters's house. I had been here before, on a strawberrying stroll with Melindy,—(across lots it was not far,)—and having been asked in then, and entertained the lady with a recital of some foreign exploit, garnished for the occasion, of course she recognized me with clamorous hospitality.
"Why how do yew do, Mister Greene? I declare I ha'n't done a-thinkin' of that 'ere story you told us the day you was here, 'long o' Melindy." (Kate gave an ominous little cough.) "I was a-tellin' husband yesterday 't I never see sech a master hand for stories as you be. Well, yis, we hev got turkeys, young 'uns; but my stars! I don't know no more where they be than nothin'; they've strayed away into the woods, I guess, and I do'no' as the boys can skeer 'em up; besides, the boys is to school; h'm—yis! Where did you and Melindy go that day arter berries?"
"Up in the pine-lot, ma'am. You think you can't let us have the turkeys?"
"Dew tell ef you went up there! It's near about the sightliest place I ever see. Well, no,—I don't see how's to ketch them turkeys. Miss Bemont, she't lives over on Woodchuck Hill, she's got a lot o' little turkeys in a coop; I guess you'd better go 'long over there, an' ef you can't get none o' her'n, by that time our boys'll be to hum, an' I'll set 'em arter our'n; they'll buckle right to; it's good sport huntin' little turkeys; an' I guess you'll hev to stop, comin' home, so's to let me know ef you'll hev 'em."
Off we drove. I stood in mortal fear of Mrs. Peters's tongue,—and Kate's comments; but she did not make any; she was even more charming than before. Presently we came to the pine-lot, where Melindy and I had been, and I drew the reins. I wanted to see Kate's enjoyment of a scene that Kensett or Church should have made immortal long ago:—a wide stretch of hill and valley, quivering with cornfields, rolled away in pasture lands, thick with sturdy woods, or dotted over with old apple-trees, whose dense leaves caught the slant sunshine, glowing on their tops, and deepening to a dark, velvety green below, and far, far away, on the broad blue sky, the lurid splendors of a thunder-cloud, capped with pearly summits, tower upon tower, sharply defined against the pure ether, while in its purple base forked lightnings sped to and fro, and revealed depths of waiting tempest that could not yet descend. Kate looked on, and over the superb picture.
"How magnificent!" was all she said, in a deep, low tone, her dark cheek flushing with the words. Melindy and I had looked off there together. "It's real good land to farm," had been the sweet little rustic's comment. How charming are nature and simplicity!
Presently we came to Mrs. Bemont's, a brown house in a cluster of maples; the door-yard full of chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese. Kate took the reins, and I knocked. Mrs. Bemont herself appeared, wiping her red, puckered hands on a long brown towel.
"Can you let me have some of your young turkeys, ma'am?" said I, insinuatingly.
"Well, I do'no';—want to eat 'em or raise 'em?"
"Both, I believe," was my meek answer.
"I do'no' 'bout lettin' on 'em go; 'ta'n't no gret good to sell 'em after all the risks is over; they git their own livin' pretty much now, an' they'll be wuth twice as much by'm'by."
"I suppose so; but Mrs. Smith's turkeys have all died, and she likes to raise them."
"Dew tell, ef you han't come from Miss Peter Smith's! Well, she'd oughter do gret things with that 'ere meetin'-'us o' her'n for the chickens; it's kinder genteel-lookin', and I spose they've got means; they've got ability. Gentility without ability I do despise; but where 't'a'n't so, 't'a'n't no matter; but I'xpect it don't ensure the faowls none, doos it?"
"I rather think not," said I, laughing; "that is the reason we want some of yours."
"Well, I should think you could hev some on 'em. What be you calc'latin' to give?"
"Whatever you say. I do not know at all the market price."
"Good land! 't'a'n't never no use to try to dicker with city folks; they a'n't use to't. I'xpect you can hev 'em for two York shillin' apiece."
"But how will you catch them?"
"Oh, I'll ketch 'em, easy!"
She went into the house and reappeared presently with a pan of Indian meal and water, called the chickens, and in a moment they were all crowding in and over the unexpected supper.
"Now you jes' take a bit o' string an' tie that 'ere turkey's legs together; 'twon't stir, I'll ensure it!"
Strange to say, the innocent creature stood still and eat, while I tied it up; all unconscious till it tumbled neck and heels into the pan, producing a start and scatter of brief duration. Kate had left the wagon, and was shaking with laughter over this extraordinary goodness on the turkeys' part, and before long our basket was full of struggling, kicking, squeaking things, "werry promiscuous," in Mr. Weller's phrase. Mrs. Bemont was paid, and while she was giving me the change,—
"Oh!" said she, "you're goin' right to Miss Tucker's, a'n't ye?—got to drop the turkeys;—won't you tell Miss Tucker 't George is comin' home tomorrer, an' he's ben to Californy. She know'd us allers, and Melindy 'n' George used ter be dre'ful thick 'fore he went off, a good spell back, when they was nigh about childern; so I guess you'd better tell 'em."
"Confound these turkeys!" muttered I, as I jumped over the basket.
"Why?" said Kate, "I suspect they are confounded enough already!"
"They make such a noise, Kate!"
So they did; "week! week! week!" all the way, like a colony from some spring-waked pool.
"Their song might be compared
To the croaking of frogs in a pond!"
The drive was lovelier than before. The road crept and curled down the hill, now covered from side to side with the interlacing boughs of grand old chestnuts; now barriered on the edge of a ravine with broken fragments and boulders of granite, garlanded by heavy vines; now skirting orchards full of promise; and all the way companied by a tiny brook, veiled deeply in alder and hazel thickets, and making in its shadowy channel perpetual muffled music, like a child singing in the twilight to reassure its half-fearful heart. Kate's face was softened and full of rich expression; her pink ribbons threw a delicate tinge of bloom upon the rounded cheek and pensive eyelid; the air was pure balm, and a cool breath from the receding showers of the distant thunderstorm just freshened the odors of wood and field. I began to feel suspiciously that sentimental, but through it all came persevering "week! week! week!" from the basket at my feet. Did I make a fine remark on the beauties of nature, "Week!" echoed the turkeys. Did Kate praise some tint or shape by the way, "Week! week!" was the feeble response. Did we get deep in poetry, romance, or metaphysics, through the most brilliant quotation, the sublimest climax, the most acute distinction, came in "Week! week! week!" I began to feel as if the old story of transmigration were true, and the souls of half a dozen quaint and ancient satirists had got into the turkeys. I could not endure it! Was I to be squeaked out of all my wisdom, and knowledge, and device, after this fashion? Never! I began, too, to discover a dawning smile upon Kate's face; she turned her head away, and I placed the turkey-basket on my knees, hoping a change of position might quiet its contents. Never was man more at fault! they were no way stilled by my magnetism; on the contrary, they threw their sarcastic utterances into my teeth, as it were, and shamed me to my very face. I forgot entirely to go round by Mrs. Peters's. I took a cross-road directly homeward; a pause—a lull—took place among the turkeys.
"How sweet and mystical this hour is!" said I to Kate, in a high-flown manner; "it is indeed
'An hour when lips delay to speak,
Oppressed with silence deep and pure;
When passion pauses—'"
"Week! week! week!" chimed in those confounded turkeys. Kate burst into a helpless fit of laughter. What could I do? I had to laugh myself, since I must not choke the turkeys.
"Excuse me, Cousin Sam," said Kate, in a laughter-wearied tone, "I could not help it; turkeys and sentimentality do not agree—always!" adding the last word maliciously, as I sprang out to open the farm-house gate, and disclosed Melindy, framed in the buttery window, skimming milk; a picture worthy of Wilkie. I delivered over my captives to Joe, and stalked into the kitchen to give Mrs. Bemont's message. Melindy came out; but as soon as I began to tell her mother where I got that message, Miss Melindy, with the sang froid of a duchess, turned back to her skimming,—or appeared to. I gained nothing by that move.
Peggy and Peter received us benignly; so universal a solvent is success, even in turkey-hunting! I meant to have gone down to the farm-house after tea, and inquired about the safety of my prizes, but Kate wanted to play chess. Peter couldn't, and Peggy wouldn't; I had to, of course, and we played late. Kate had such pretty hands; long taper fingers, rounded to the tiniest rosy points; no dimples, but full muscles, firm and exquisitely moulded; and the dainty way in which she handled her men was half the game to me;—I lost it; I played wretchedly. The next day Kate went with me to see the turkeys; so she did the day after. We were forgetting Melindy, I am afraid, for it was a week before I remembered I had promised her a new magazine. I recollected myself; then, with a sort of shame, rolled up the number, and went off to the farm-house. It seems Kate was there, busy in the garret, unpacking a bureau that had been stored there, with some of Peggy's foreign purchases, for summer wear, in the drawers. I did not know that. I found Melindy spreading yeast-cakes to dry on a table, just by the north end of the house; a hop-vine in full blossom made a sort of porch-roof over the window by which she stood.
"I've brought your book, Melindy," said I.
"Thank you, sir," returned she, crisply.
"How pretty you look to-day." condescendingly remarked I.
"I don't thank you for that, sir;—
"'Praise to the face
Is open disgrace!'"
was all the response.
"Why, Melindy! what makes you so cross?" inquired I, in a tone meant to be tenderly reproachful,—in the mean time attempting to possess myself of her hand; for, to be honest, Polder, I had been a little sweet to the girl before Kate drove her out of my head. The hand was snatched away. I tried indifference.
"How are the turkeys to-day. Melindy?"
Here Joe, an enfant terrible, came upon the scene suddenly.
"Them turkeys eats a lot, Mister Greene. Melindy says there's one on 'em struts jes' like you, 'n' makes as much gabble."
"Gobble! gobble! gobble!" echoed an old turkey from somewhere; I thought it was overhead, but I saw nothing. Melindy threw her apron over her face and laughed till her arms grew red. I picked up my hat and walked off. For three days I kept out of that part of the Smith demesne, I assure you! Kate began to grow mocking and derisive; she teased me from morning till night, and the more she teased me, the more I adored her. I was getting desperate, when one Sunday night Kate asked me to walk down to the farm-house with her after tea, as Mrs. Tucker was sick, and she had something to take to her. We found the old woman sitting up in the kitchen, and as full of talk as ever, though an unlucky rheumatism kept her otherwise quiet.
"How do the turkeys come on, Mrs. Tucker?" said I, by way of conversation.
"Well, I declare, you han't heerd about them turkeys, hev ye? You see they was doin' fine, and father he went off to salt for a spell, so's to see'f 'twouldn't stop a complaint he's got,—I do'no' but it's a spine in the back,—makes him kinder' faint by spells, so's he loses his conscientiousness all to once; so he left the chickens 'n' things for Melindy to boss, 'n' she got somethin' else into her head, 'n' she left the door open one night, and them ten turkeys they up and run away, I'xpect they took to the woods, 'fore Melindy brought to mind how't she hadn't shut the door. She's set out fur to hunt 'em. I shouldn't wonder'f she was out now, seein' it's arter sundown."
"She a'n't nuther!" roared the terrible Joe, from behind the door, where he had retreated at my coming. "She's settin' on a flour-barrel down by the well, an' George Bemont's a-huggin' on her"
Good gracious! what a slap Mrs. Tucker fetched that unlucky child, with a long brown towel that hung at hand! and how he howled! while Kate exploded with laughter, in spite of her struggles to keep quiet.
"He is the dre'fullest boy!" whined Mrs. Tucker. "Melindy tells how he sassed you 'tother day, Mr. Greene. I shall hev to tewtor that boy; he's got to hev the rod, I guess!"
I bade Mrs. Tucker good night, for Kate was already out of the door, and, before I knew what she was about, had taken a by-path in sight of the well; and there, to be sure, sat Melindy, on a prostrate flour-barrel that was rolled to the foot of the big apple-tree, twirling her fingers in pretty embarrassment, and held on her insecure perch by the stout arm of George Bemont, a handsome brown fellow, evidently very well content just now.
"Pretty,—isn't it?" said Kate.
"Very,—quite pastoral," sniffed I.
We were sitting round the open door an hour after, listening to a whippoorwill, and watching the slow moon rise over a hilly range just east of Centreville, when that elvish little "week! week!" piped out of the wood that lay behind the house.
"That is hopeful," said Kate; "I think Melindy and George must have tracked the turkeys to their haunt, and scared them homeward."
"George—who?" said Peggy.
"George Bemont; it seems he is—what is your Connecticut phrase?—sparkin' Melindy."
"I'm very glad; he is a clever fellow," said Peter.
"And she is such a very pretty girl," continued Peggy,—"so intelligent and graceful; don't you think so, Sam?"
"Aw, yes, well enough for a rustic," said I, languidly. "I never could endure red hair, though!"
Kate stopped on the door-sill; she had risen to go up stairs.
"Gobble! gobble! gobble!" mocked she. I had heard that once before! Peter and Peggy roared;—they knew it all;—I was sold!
"Cure me of Kate Stevens?" Of course it did. I never saw her again without wanting to fight shy, I was so sure of an allusion to turkeys. No, I took the first down train. There are more pretty girls in New York, twice over, than there are in Centreville, I console myself; but, by George! Polder, Kate Stevens was charming!—Look out there! don't meddle with the skipper's coils of rope! can't you sleep on deck without a pillow?